Muscle memory

Although I am not teaching any Latin classes this year, I still identify myself as a Latin and Computer Science teacher. And whenever I introduce myself that way, I always get a reaction.

“The old and the new, huh? What an odd mix.”

It’s not necessarily the juxtaposition of modern and ancient that elicits a reaction (maybe it’s science vs. humanities or the vocational gap between the two), but the surprise always seems to be there.

It’s not really that weird

Classics and computer science in fact have a lot in common. The students whom I’ve taught in both classes see it the same way. A few examples:

  • Habits of pattern-matching, algorithmic thinking, debugging are expressed similarly but with different names.
  • Puzzle-masters, problem-solvers, and decoders feel equally at home in these two fields.
  • Simultaneous abstract- and concrete-thinking skills are required in both disciplines.
  • Whether we are interpreting ancient texts for modern English readers or writing code for computers, both are essentially one-way translations.
  • Computer scientists and classicists are both hung up on documentation. Classicists compile a single dictionary for a hundred years; programmers store millions of lines of code with instructions and annotations online.

Here’s the weird part

Before Virgil or Turing entered my world, I was a dancer. I performed, competed, and practiced 20-hours per week in my childhood. When I was 16 I earned the title of National Male Dancer of the Year and High Scoring Soloist. Here’s proof:

Of course I learned a lot of things from my short lifetime as a dancer (how to collaborate as a member of an ensemble and the value of hard work are two lessons that have outlasted my flexibility and the arches in my feet), but the surprising part comes from considering the way I learned to dance and how different it was from the realms of antiquity and cyberspace that I inhabited next.

Learning to dance; learning to learn

The introduction to Jennifer Homans’s book, Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet, helped me see the stark contrast between the way I learned about computer science and Latin and the way I learned to dance.

…Besides, unlike theater or music, ballet has no texts and no standard notation, and only the most scattered written records.

Without the conveniences of documentation, ballet dancers learn from master teachers in a way that seems unique to the art form:

…The teachings of the master are revered for their beauty and logic, but also because they are the only connection the younger dancer has to the past[…] It is these relationships, the bonds between master and student, that bridge the centuries and give ballet its foothold in the past.

…No wonder dancers obsessively memorize everything: steps, gestures, combinations, variations, whole ballets. It is difficult to overstate this. Memory is central to the art, and dancers are trained, as the ballerina Natalia Makarova once put it, to “eat” dances — to ingest them and make them part of who they are. These are physical memories; when dancers know a dance, they know it in their muscles and bones.

And that’s how I learn even today: by muscle memory. I learn how something feels when I know it.

And sometimes that’s how I teach. After exploring a new concept I often find myself asking the class, “How does that feel?” knowing that there might only be a few students who process information the way I do. I continue to look for ways that the dancer in me affects the teacher in me.

The value of demi-pliés

What most people know about ballet class is how it begins: pliés in first position. Three year-olds in pink tutus and professionals at the Royal Ballet in England always begin class the same way. Watch for just a moment if you can’t picture the simplest step in ballet (starting at 0:00:59):

What most people don’t know is why ballet classes always begin this way. Why would professional dancers need to start every single class with the same knee-bends exercise that they mastered decades ago?

The answer is that starting every single class with this exercise fundamentally changes a dancer’s relationship with the floor and with their own breathing; and it develops habits of practice, patience, and mastery.

And I find myself wondering now: what habits am I developing in my students? What are the demi-pliés of my classes? What reflexes am I instilling through muscle memory and repetition? What is there in the way I greet students, or confront problems, or welcome diversity, or show compassion that is influencing the instincts my students will carry beyond my class?


6 thoughts on “Muscle memory

  1. This is a wonderful post…you’re ability to relate these seemingly disparate disciplines scream awesome educator to me. I am constantly aware of the math in Shakespeare, and I am really not a math geek. I have a word for ALL education: magic. Like close up magic, it requires misdirection to achieve its goal. “Look away, for a moment.” Like big magic, it is all about what illusion we can create. Your students are really lucky to have you and PLEASE come and dance/choreograph with us one day.

  2. An amazing post from an amazing person. Love you lots and lots BC, you inspire us all. I also enjoyed the video that you included tremendously….
    to watch us dance is to hear our hearts speak…

  3. Pingback: Not so much a blueprint as a recipe | They Call Me BC

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